No one says it – at least not to your face. But you feel it. You see the judgment in people’s eyes when you tell them you are getting a divorce. You hear the criticism in their voice when they ask whether you are sure that you are doing the right thing. No one has to say anything. You know what they are thinking. You are getting divorced: You are a failure. But they are wrong (and so are you if you believe them!) Getting divorced does not mean you are a failure. It means your marriage is ending. That’s all it means.
The Meaning of Failure
Webster’s Dictionary defines failure as “a fracturing or giving way under stress.” Using that definition, divorce certainly would be “a failure.” Most marriages that end in divorce do so because they fractured under stress. But, is that definition accurate? It is certainly not complete.
Webster’s Dictionary also defines failure as “a lack of success.” Using that definition, is a marriage that ends in divorce “a failure?” Is ending an abusive marriage in divorce rather than waiting until it ends in the victim’s death “a failure?” Is divorcing an alcoholic or a drug addict who is endangering your children’s health “a failure?” If you choose to create a peaceful home for your children rather than live together in turmoil, is that “a failure?”
When you look at it that way, it is not so easy to say that every marriage that ends before death is “a failure.” The truth is that, whether or not something is “a failure” depends completely upon how you define the word “failure.”
How Do You Define Failure?
Even though almost half of all marriages now end in divorce, we still cling to the misguided belief that, unless a marriage lasts until death, it failed. Personally, I don’t think that is true. I think that many marriages that ultimately end in divorce were happy, healthy, and “successful” for at least some amount of time. Why doesn’t that count?
Why do we say an entire marriage “failed” just because at some point before one of the parties died, the marriage ended? That seems profoundly unfair, not only to both of the people in the marriage, but to the entire institution of marriage as well.
While we are talking about failed marriages, it is also helpful to flip the question around. If a marriage “fails” if it ends before death, then does it automatically “succeed” as long as a couple stays together? If the only measure of success is whether or not the marriage lasts, then happiness, love, security, stability, and a thousand other benefits that marriage is supposed to provide really don’t matter at all.
Sorry, but I don’t buy that definition. I don’t define any marriage that harbors physical abuse as “successful.” I don’t believe that staying married at the expense of your safety, your emotional stability, or your soul, is successful. I believe that marriage, real marriage, “successful” marriage, is so much more.
It’s Not About Your Head
Of course, the problem is that, even if you agree that not all marriages that end in divorce are failures, and even if you understand, logically, that your marriage was not a failure just because it ended in divorce, that does not change the fact that you still feel like it failed. Worse, you still feel like a failure. That is the real problem.
What you need to understand is that there is an enormous difference between what you do and who you are. Even if your actions, or inaction, led to the demise of your marriage, that does not necessarily mean you are a failure. It may mean you made mistakes, or exercised bad judgment. It many mean you were foolish, insensitive, arrogant, or even stupid. All of those words may define how you acted. But, fundamentally, they do not define who you are as a human being.
Now, all of this is not to say that you are not responsible for your actions, or that you shouldn’t take your marriage, and your marriage vows seriously. If you caused the breakdown of your marriage, then you absolutely need to look at your behavior and take responsibility for any harm you have caused. But, what you don’t need to do is spend the rest of your life in shame, feeling like a failure because of what you did. If you made a mistake, own it. Do your best to right your wrongs. Then forgive yourself, forgive your spouse, and move on.
You are More than Your Divorce
Divorce happens. Whether you think it is right, wrong, good, or bad, the simple truth is: divorce happens. When it happens to you, it sucks! But, beating yourself up about being “a failure” on top of going through the rest of the emotional turmoil that surrounds divorce doesn’t help. It just makes you feel worse. It strips you of your power, and makes it harder for you to heal after your divorce is done.
Unfortunately, our society has not yet evolved past judgment and shame. You probably will still lose friends in your divorce. You probably will still feel people judging you and labeling you “a failure” because your marriage ended. But you don’t have to buy their definition or their judgment. You have the power to create your own definition of yourself and your life.
Who are you? Divorced, yes. But a failure? Not by a long shot.